History in Focus: Moonshine and Motors
Moonshine has a long and storied history in much of America, beginning in the early 20th century. In 1920, the 18th Amendment was introduced. This law banned both the production and possession of alcohol, and marked the beginning of the era of prohibition.
In the beginning, federal and state laws appeared to have been a resounding success. Drunken and disorderly disturbances and arrests declined. Although it was banned, however, the thirst for liquor had not abated, and the illegal manufacture and sale of liquor, a practice known as ‘bootlegging’, was on the increase. Many people began producing their own alcohol, known as ‘moonshine’.
But making moonshine was a risky business; these were the days of sepia and grey pictures and men in top hats, and if a man was caught breaking the laws on prohibition, he would be imprisoned if he was lucky, and killed if he was less so.
Law enforcement officials were keen to enforce the amendment, which meant that alcohol producers were forced to think of ingenious ways to conduct their business below the radar. In order to transport the illegal liquor they were selling, they required vehicles which would blend in and not attract any undue attention.
Initially, they transported their wares in their personal cars, driving by night in the hopes that they would be harder to see. They took to calling themselves ‘moon runners’. However, they soon found that when they were caught, they were sitting ducks, their vehicles unable to outrun those of the police. To give their vehicles a sterling advantage, they had to design a vehicle which was much, much faster.
And so moonshine motors were born. Producers and runners began taking ordinary cars and subtly altering them to create a speed advantage without making them conspicuous. The cars they fashioned looked much like any other car, but they were so quick that they could easily outpace the vehicles driven by law enforcement officials.
These motors needed to be capable of high-tailing their way along creeks and mountain switchbacks, with law enforcement men in hot pursuit, yet inconspicuous enough not to draw undue attention. Whether they were transporting moonshine from Canada across the border into the United States, or from stills in the Appalachian Mountains, it was imperative that the cars looked ‘stock’.
The inner workings of the cars, however, were not normal at all. Moonshiners began to fit them with the stiffest suspension they could create to hide that they were carrying 100 plus gallons of liquid and up to 500-something horsepower. Heavy shocks and springs also helped to absorb the bumpy mountain roads and prevented damage to the glass Mason jars filled with liquor. Although they were exquisitely designed for speed and immensely powerful, these vehicles faded into the background, their magic secreted beneath shining paint and an ordinary surface.
The Original Moon Runner’s Drive
The most popular whiskey car of the prohibition era was Ford’s ‘Tin Lizzie’. The T-Model Ford derived its power from a 177 cubic-inch inline four that produced just 20-horsepower. In stock trim, it was capable of reaching 40-45 mph. It cost around $250 new.
This old, inconspicuous classic was the favourite drive of legendary moonshiners like Raymond Parks, who would drive their load of shine down out of the mountains under cover of darkness, then change into a suit to blend into the early-morning commuter traffic in cities like Atlanta. The car blended in effortlessly, for three out of four cars on the road at that time were Model T Fords.
Ironically, Henry Ford was himself a staunch prohibitionist, who had banned his factory workers from drinking, yet his best-selling vehicle was the tool of choice for a new breed of master bootleggers.
The Birth of Stock Car Racing
Running from the law on the back roads of the Appalachians gave birth to a breed of cars which could do 120 mph on dirt roads, and drivers who could steer them around potholes and through streams in the dark without any headlights.
Moonshine car drivers were a competitive bunch, constantly bragging about their infamous exploits. They were adrenaline junkies, and they quickly became tired of easily outrunning law enforcement in their beautifully designed, high-speed vehicles. That was when they began racing against one another at county fairs on Sunday after church. This is where stock car racing was born, NASCAR the most famous love child of moonshine.
Prohibition ended in 1933, but by this point racing had become so popular that the sport continued to grow over the next few years, with cars becoming ever quicker and more lavishly designed for thrilling bursts of speed. By 1948, the sport was widespread, but different from region to region. NASCAR was formed in 1949 to organise the chaos.
Many of the most successful early race car drivers were former moonshine runners. Junior Johnson, one of the most notable, transported bootleg liquor for years before he became a NASCAR legend, and the star of books such as The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes! by Tom Wolfe and the 1973 film The Last American Hero.
The glory days of moonshine were during the age of prohibition, but perhaps its most exciting period was during the 1950s and 60s, when the power of the law strengthened and the power of the hot-rod exploded. Some of the greatest hot-rods to ever ply the roads of West Virginia, Kentucky, Georgia and the Carolinas were born for the sole purpose of playing a role in the moonshine trade. These cars appeared to be stock, yet they rarely were. Rather, they were pieced together by men who appreciated horsepower and cargo-carrying capacity.
The demise of the moonshine business came about in the 50s and 60s. It went out in a blaze of iconic glory and real-life drama born of tougher laws, big loads and fast cars, in a pageant of high-speed chases, roadblocks, crashes and gunplay – a fitting end for an industry which always skirted on the wrong side of the law, but did so with a glorious joie de vivre, high drama and always, always, adrenaline-inducing speed.
And if you, as a classics lover, should miss the thrill of days gone by in our clinically sanitary and well-regimented society, then don’t despair. Like all the best things, a trace of those days remains. Some of these moonshine motors still exist, like old Thoroughbreds with an immutable beauty born from sleek athleticism and the memory of speed. The rear suspension is still ultra-stiff, still ready to conceal the weight of more than 100 gallons of white lighting as it rolls down the foothills of the Appalachians. The side-stills may no longer exist, but some of the cars remain, waiting for classics lovers enchanted by their story.
Historic Sports Car Club Finals Event Review